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I am A.I.

Service is sexy

Have you ever refused to purchase a product because of the brand’s poor return policy? Have you dropped a company for not offering 24/7 support or a mobile app? Have you discontinued a working with a business because you couldn’t fix your issue or get your question answered? 

Now, think about the companies who “just get it” and treat you right. Think of CSAT category leaders in almost every industry. What makes them different? Customer centricity. 

All chief executives know their companies will win or falter based on customer experiences (CX). Yet why is there such a disparity between the CX energy being put into marketing and sales when the battlefield has shifted to the everyday experiences associated with actual customer service? Customers are fawned over during acquisition and shopping experiences, but many feel undervalued and unappreciated during service experiences. What gives? 

Digital has modernized every aspect of our lives, and companies have gone through waves of disruption to create competitive advantage—first it was digital brand and demand experiences, then omnichannel commerce and supply chain scenarios that took the limelight for customer experiences. 

Now, businesses are at different stages of service design/redesign, yet again they are all too often thinking of it more as a product than as simply core to all interactions a consumer has with a brand and its good and services.

Because so many companies equate CX to brand, demand, and sales, service has not been managed strategically by boards and executive committees. Now that competition has shifted away from products to providing amazing services—through products and support—the race is on in every industry for disruptive service. But service experiences are lagging behind brand, acquisition, loyalty, and other customer experiences.

Given the abundance of choice, low switching barriers for consumers, and our high expectations of great service, companies that pivot from product to customer focus are winning. These companies have customer centricity that extends into the essential, day-in and day-out service experiences.

How we got here
Traditionally, customer service wasn’t a critical piece of the “customer centricity” puzzle. Care operations historically prioritized cost containment over customer focus. And with good reason—products were the priority, so marketing and sales could handle it. Besides one-off solutions like win-backs or high-value customer concierge, too many decisions in the service arena were driven by how poor a customer experience a brand could afford to deliver without negatively affecting its bottom line.

What’s worse, the function was often siloed from other parts of the organization. The customer feedback loop closed too early in the customer journey, locking out valuable front-line customer and associate insight and data from customer strategy efforts.

We all got here honestly. It was a natural evolution. The race to be omnichannel is a wave that first pulsed through marketing, then sales and fulfillment, then service models and subscriptions, and now into customer service. Companies started with the biggest areas of opportunity with the least amount of complexity. 

First, the internet empowered brands to engage in dialogues by sharing content. This became a brand and demand strategy. Omnichannel created mobile, kiosk, in-store, out of home, and other points of interaction. Then, companies leveraged the power of these digital channels to sell, and to support (but not serve). E-commerce quickly became omnichannel commerce.  

Portals and FAQs became relevant and valuable. And the customer experience became a complex set of interactions crisscrossing content, commerce, supply chain, and support. Customer service was in the mix, but the solutions were seldom well-integrated, and rarely did the service experience match the brand, demand, or e-commerce experience in terms of prioritization. Experiences were really necessary transactions, often reactive and tactical, not proactive, relationship-building activity. 

Make room for service
Today’s omnichannel wave is pulsing through customer service, but not yet in the strategic manner it should, save for the few companies who have it figured out and who make others look to be behind the times (think Amazon and Chick-fil-A).

We define omnichannel service as the ability to be served by a company in any format the customer chooses, following the customer within and across mediums and channels so they can be helped anywhere they like without having to start over. While traditional customer “support” is reactive and transactional, omnichannel “service” is proactive, based on relationships, and blends human emotion with digital effectiveness.

Most companies have multiple channels, but struggle to create a true omnichannel ecosystem at scale. Though technologies and capabilities exist to enable the omnichannel vision, today it’s mostly deployed as disjointed, siloed projects. 

The business world is waking up to the fact that to pull this off, service experiences must be designed and delivered from the voice of the customer back into the business. And that means business, marketing, sales, technology, service all working together to understand, prioritize, and iteratively improve service experiences along with all other experiences.

Service is the gift that keeps on giving. Elevating service to be a strategic customer-centric pillar gives firms quantifiable product, service, and brand image insights that can be driven back into the business through real-time data and voice of the customer based on customer interactions. Companies can leverage this to build competitive advantage to win the war for market share on the battlefield of service redesign. Interactions become differentiated, empathetic service experiences that make customer relationships more valuable, personal, and long lasting. Companies retain customers longer, drive higher affinity, and even boost associate morale and retention through positive experiences. 

It’s easy in theory, but immense challenges exist in practice. Too often there’s a disconnect between senior management’s corporate vision and the reality of service operations, which brings us back to cost containment. The cost-managed contact center is dead; the companies that continue to view and manage cost-first in service will find themselves eclipsed by innovators who take share of customers and share of wallet at warp speed. Yes, cost is essential. Yet as long as cost is the driver, business will over-index on operational metrics not customer-centric metrics, and it can lead to attrition as others improve service experiences as a strategic advantage.

Technology is not a panacea. While the technology enables the disruption, it will yield little to no value if it’s not strategically planned then optimized. And it won’t be a platform for customer centricity if it is not insight-driven, and if the company does not plan the demand shift of service across channels in a strategic, programmatic way. For example, the power of machine learning with AI chatbots is so exciting on the surface. Yet, if the knowledge management system is suboptimal, and the bots aren’t managed within the context of overall omnichannel customer journeys, they will fail to serve customers in a meaningful way, and will fail to deliver returns. Complex challenges become more complex with every channel and tool.

What can companies do
Companies are not alone in their goal to enabling strategic, omnichannel service experiences. It’s a daunting task, made easier with the right guidance. To get started, here are a few foundational elements that help any company take the right steps forward:

1. Align customer experience in the service lane to the company strategy—and measure it differently. Use metrics that can be understood outside service that show its contribution to the big picture. While the key core metrics of a high-performing contact center remain key to good business, adding customer-centric insights, feeding those back into the business, successfully enmeshes the customer service experience into the full business. This subtle shift is not expensive. On the contrary, it’s a huge opportunity for amazing companies to get further out front by rethinking the service it provides in the context of the overall journey.  

2. Redesign the service experience—from the customer back in. Think about service, not just support, and consider the end-to-end customer journey in your design. Balance efficiency with meeting customer needs, which may open doors to apply new tools and technologies not previously used.

3.Take a programmatic approach to omnichannel service. It’s not a one-and-done endeavor. Be intentional with minimum viable concepts that become minimum viable products. Isolated pilots don’t further the cause, they are a way for an organization to understand and interact with a capability. For true omnichannel to occur, channels and data must be unified in the customer experience organization and across the enterprise as complete programs. 

4. Planning is the plan. Blueprint and walk the roadmap. As brands unify data, knowledge management, interaction channels, and insights, they begin to realize the benefits while always learning and improving. And as they walk the roadmap, new capabilities emerge and new unintended outcomes create new possibilities.

5. Involve executives. Customer experience executives, and importantly their management teams, should get comfortable talking with business, marketing, IT, digital, and other departments who design, build, sell, and deliver the company’s core offerings. The more they understand the details, the better they can keep it aligned to the big strategic picture. 

Every company, I believe, wants the best for its customers. Yet the challenge lies in companies making the true pivot from product centricity to customer centricity-and that means extending amazing experiences into the service experiences on par with demand, brand, sales, and supply chain. An end-to-end strategic approach and commitment in the service experience is needed to win in today’s market. Only when this happens will a company truly pivot from being product-centric to customer-centric.